There were two of them.
It’s an insensitive way to put it, but it’s the way I think about it. Like human bookends for my time in that neighborhood.
My neighborhood in Toronto, on the cusp of gentrifying, was really something. A good portion of it had been a Polish enclave. The women who cut my hair spoke Polish to one another. Some Saturdays, there were butcheries that grilled sausages right outside. There was a statue of Pope John Paul II.
There were half a dozen coffee shops, my favorite of which was also a restaurant–everything served there was fair trade, organic, or sustainably raised–except for some baked goods, and they were made at an independent living facility for developmentally disabled adults. I often joked that it was the most ethical place I’d ever eaten.
My building was in a row of low-rise apartments, and most of the residents were either pensioners or recently immigrated families. There were maybe a handful of folks like me, single and in their early 30s, but not many.
In a neighborhood like this, so densely filled with difference, no one really stands out. In a city as big as Toronto, people (politely) keep to themselves, unless invited to do otherwise, so it is rare for people to pay much attention to the oddities and particularities of others–or at least it was rare to see anyone make a spectacle of themselves pointing out how they thought someone was making a spectacle of himself or herself.
But there were two transgendered women that I paid attention to, because I kept running into them. The first time I saw the first woman, I thought maybe it was a really bad joke. He looked a lot like the cartoonish participants in the “Womanless Beauty Pageants” that were occasionally civic fundraisers in the small town I grew up in (nothing repressed there, kids!). He was pudgy and 60ish, tall, drunk, wearing a sleeveless blouse and a skirt and old basketball hightop sneakers, a US Marine tattoo on his bicep and a blonde wig that was comically crooked.
She was as drunk as you might expect, roving around in the street, yelling something. I didn’t know if she was just slurring because he was drunk or if she was speaking something other than English. Nothing added up, so I thought maybe she was just one of the old pensioners in my neighborhood who had had an epic night out.
But I kept seeing her, sometimes roving and raving, sometimes acting a little more in-control. Once, I saw her sitting on the step of the front of a grocery store, her wig in her hands. She reminded me of Charlie Brown at that moment–disgusted and dejected; Sad and ready to give up. And honestly, the memory of her without her wig–or even with it worn crookedly–makes it much easier for me to type “his” and “he” than “her” or “she.”
The second woman was younger, taller, more polished. She seemed incredibly aware of her posture, her head raised high–always. I think we had a similar work schedule (at least on the days when I was in town) and I would often see her on the streetcar. I once saw her offer a calm intercession on behalf of an obviously mentally ill woman who kept screeching slurs at everyone on the bus. When the driver confronted the screeching woman, a West Indian Woman spoke on her behalf (though she had screeched a slur in her direction just minutes before), and the transgendered woman held her hand up in a way that said, calmly and with authority, that it was okay.
One Sunday, I was feeling guilty about not having gone to church for several weeks, and decided to go to a local United Church of Canada before finding my way back to the Fair Trade coffee shop. I was glad to arrive and discover that they would be celebrating communion that week (in my tradition, it’s a weekly affair, so I miss it when it’s not part of a service). It was celebrated by intinction, and who was holding the chalice filled with wine? Bookend number two, her head held back with dignity and a sense of importance. I received the meal with gratitude.
There are plenty of ways that pastors use stories like this–to illustrate the care of a community of faith, to advocate for vulnerable people, and the like. And sure, it’s tempting to draw a clear cut and dry comparison between a transgendered woman who lives with dignity and one who has lost hers, for whatever reason. But I’m going to try to not fall into that temptation and instead say that I don’t know what the intersection of my life with these two people means. It may mean nothing. But that’s the real gift of the things we remember, right? Sometimes the sense is in the telling, in the remembering, and in leaving the words in the air–to be heard, to be retold, or just to be.
I’ve been watching Transparent on Amazon Prime. It’s the sort of show that reminds you why people keep talking about the “Golden Age of Television.” Watching Jeffrey Tambor’s character negotiate his identity in several scenes over the course of a few decades brought this memory to mind. Whether or not it becomes part of a larger piece of writing, I just didn’t want to lose it..